"The problem is, the deconversion testimonies I've read about finding a new freedom in life or raw existential joy don't seem to ring true. Instead, I find myself almost entirely lacking in motivation to do anything. Life is overcast and gray, a film watched through foggy goggles. I feel like a robot following its programming. The Christian would say, ‘Congratulations! You're now experiencing the meaninglessness of life apart from God,’ but when I look at other non-believers who don't have this problem, it's clear I'm doing something wrong.
"I realize that I can't just expect to flip a switch and immediately be freed from my Christian frame of reference. I'd been a true believer for my entire life, and the mentality and habits of faith are extraordinarily hard to break: I still feel awkward not praying before meals; when I'm approaching something difficult or uncertain, my first instinct is still to pray; and I still recoil from things that Christianity (alone) says are immoral.”
I include this message from George because it is unguarded and compelling--and probably more common than he realizes. It’s true that the testimonials of former Christians posted on the Internet are typically positive, inviting stories of liberation from the suffocating grip of fundamentalism. But for every glowing invitation to follow in their footsteps, we have no idea how many tormented souls wish they had not ventured into the stormy, open seas in which they find themselves, without an anchor or bearing and with no land in sight. Why do I think George is not alone? It’s because his experience mirrors so closely my own turmoil that began over a decade ago, and those of others with whom I’ve privately corresponded.
In fact, I would be surprised if George’s experience were not the norm, at least for those of us whose faith, whose relationship with Jesus, formerly constituted our very identity. It wasn’t that Jesus was just a part of our lives, or even the most important part of our lives; he was our life. Should it come as a surprise to experience the loss of Jesus as we would the death of the one we hold most dear or as a divorce from our beloved spouse? I recall all too well in the year 2000 the knot in my stomach, the nausea, the sweat, the grey fog, the depression, the uncertainty, and the dread that filled my heart as I crossed the threshold from the comforts of faith to the despair of doubt. George, you are not alone, not at all.
If you’ve lived your whole life with the understanding that the universe was created with you in mind, that your life matters infinitely to your creator, that you have a purpose to fulfill for the glory of your creator, that he considers you as the apple of his eye, that he gave up his son for you, that he watches out for you and protects you, and that he’s preparing a place of bliss for you for all eternity, and then if you come to doubt all that, of course you’re going to be depressed! For those that easily skip from belief to unbelief without missing a beat (if such a person exists), I wonder how much their former faith really meant to them in the first place. The loss is felt most acutely by those who had the most to lose.
Those of us who’ve never used heroin don’t know how much of a struggle it is to give it up; only those who savored a regular high struggle to withdraw. Incidentally, perhaps this is why I (and other former believers) tend to seek out fellow apostates. Though we share a common worldview with lifelong unbelievers, we don’t share the same pre-deconversion or deconversion experiences. And, as George mentioned, we carry into our new life many of the views on morality we grew up with; for example, we may remain uncomfortable with drunkenness, profanity, loose sexual mores, homosexuality, abortion, or liberal political views--things that longtime atheists often don’t have a problem with. I’m not going to delve into these matters here, other than to note that these questions constitute one more source of angst for those of us who’ve grown up as conservative Christians and have left the faith for intellectual rather than moral reasons.
A number of surveys have shown that religious people are on average happier than unbelievers. I have been confronted by Christians who’ve used these statistics to question my new worldview. Likewise, they’ve also confronted me with assertions that, without God, there’s no good reason to be moral, nor does life have any meaning. What these well-meaning Christians don’t understand is that I did not abandon my faith because I wanted to, but because I came to see it as untrue. And if you don’t think something its true, you cannot simply make yourself believe it to be true. It doesn’t matter whether I might be less happy or less inclined to be moral or to find meaning in life; I cannot believe what I cannot believe. I suspect George is in the same boat, wanting in some sense to go back to the familiarity and security of faith but finding himself unable to do so.
But is there hope for those of us who give up our religion out of intellectual integrity, with no benefit to ourselves or to society? Are we just to grit our teeth stoically, tell the world we don’t believe, and forgo the benefits of religious meaning, morality, and community? I have written at greater length on the questions of morality (chapter 8; see also this blog post) and meaning (chapter 9) of my book. It’s my conviction that unbelievers have no fewer legitimate reasons or any reduced capacity to be moral compared to their religious counterparts, and there’s no reason we cannot lead fulfilling, meaningful lives. However, the loud insistence of the church that this is not so can actually make us believe it has a monopoly on the true source of morality, meaning, and joy, even as we make our exit from the church. Our long-term dependence on religion for these benefits is real and does make it difficult to envision a fulfilling life outside the church. In the months and sometimes years following our deconversion, we suffer this loss acutely. But over time, we adapt to the “new normal”; we “come out” to everyone, we keep many of our old friends and make some new ones, we find activities that give life meaning, we adjust to the idea that the universe was not made with us in mind--and eventually the turmoil we experienced in the beginning fades away into a bad memory. In other words--and this is the main point I want any struggling readers to take home--it gets better with time. Not only to we adjust to loss, but we eventually our situation improves as we begin to see the world closer to how it really is; as we shed our egocentric notions of cosmic importance, as we let go of the congitive dissonance we experienced when we tried to fit square pegs into round holes; and as we no longer have to see others as targets of conversion lest they suffer for all eternity separated from God. For some the benefits come sooner than for others, and I can only hope that your deconversion blues will soon begin to fade, though there may always be a social price to pay, as there continues to be for me.
Finally, though it’s conventional wisdom that believers are happier than unbelievers, the truth is more nuanced than that. According to this study, firmly convinced and engaged believers are happier than lukewarm or uninvolved believers. The interesting thing is that the same phenomenon holds true for unbelievers: those that are just lapsed churchgoers (those who might have left the church for interpersonal or financial reasons, for example, or those who simply lost interest without intense study, or those who are unsure whether they believe or don’t believe) are less happy than those who are confident and open in their unbelief. In other words, whether you’re a believer or an unbeliever, if you’re uncertain or half-hearted about what you believe, you’re less likely to be happy than if you’re a confident and/or committed believer or unbeliever. So it’s natural that as you’re going through the uncertainty surrounding deconversion, even if you suspect that Christianity is untrue, if you have natural lingering doubts about your doubts, you can expect to live with the blues until your pressing doubts are resolved in one direction or another. But again, it gets better with time, since generally over the years you come to terms with your doubts and become more settled in what you believe.